The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (March 2019)
In journalism, the society page of a newspaper is largely or entirely devoted to the social and cultural events and gossip of the location covered. Other features that frequently appear on the society page are a calendar of charity events and pictures of locally, nationally and internationally famous people. Society pages expanded to become women's page sections.
The first true society page in the United States was the invention of newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett Jr., who created it for the New York Herald in 1835. His reportage centred upon the lives and social gatherings of the rich and famous, with names partially deleted by dashes and reports mildly satirical. Mott et al[who?] record that "Society was at first aghast, then amused, then complacent, and finally hungry for the penny-press stories of its own doings." Bennett had in fact been reporting such news since 1827, with articles in the New York Enquirer. In the period after the United States Civil War, there were many newly rich people in the country, and reportage of their antics, sometimes tasteless and gauche, was of considerable entertainment value. By 1885, Ward McAllister had been recruited to report on society news for the New York World by Joseph Pulitzer, and it was around that time that society reporting, both on dedicated society pages and in the new Sunday supplements, became very popular.
Society pages and society reporting was prevalent in the New York daily newspapers from the winter of 1880 onward. The previous year, Pearl Rivers had transplanted the notion to New Orleans, where she had begun the Society Bee, a local society column, on March 16, 1879. Again, the initial reaction was shock. Rivers reported, in the Society Bee itself of course, the reaction of one woman who was, "opposed to print on principle". Print applied to persons is her special horror and abomination ... poison only fit for politics, Associated Press dispatches, and police reports. She thought me very wrong to mention any ladies' names in a newspaper. She said [that] it was 'shabby' and 'shoddy' and 'shameful'." But Rivers persevered, and a decade later, on November 2, 1890, the column, now simply titled Society, was the largest part of the Sunday paper carrying it.
By 1900, most daily newspapers had a women's page that covered local high society as well as fashion. The goal in any case was to attract women as readers, and attract subscribers by promising a new audience for consumer advertising. Women's pages in general covered issues intended to attract the readership of the stereotypical American housewife of the time: society news, fashion, food, relationships, etiquette, health, homemaking, interior decorating, and family issues. One of the most prominent leaders was Marjorie Paxson. She began her career for a wire service during World War I, when male reporters were scarce. When they returned she went to the women's page in Houston, Texas. In the 1950s she moved to women's section of the Miami Herald, Which was nationally renowned for its women's page. She became women's page editor at the St. Petersburg Times in 1969. She was elected national president of Theta Sigma Phi, now Association for Women in Communications, in 1963. She went on to become the fourth female publisher in the Gannett newspaper chain. After 1970, however, gender segregation faded and the term "woman's page" fell out of fashion. Women in journalism then moved from covering teas and bridal veils to abortion, abuse and feminism.
In Britain, society news was at the same time emerging in the British press as part of "women's journalism", again aimed at attracting a female readership. It was also, in both the U.S. and Britain, largely the province of women journalists, and considered subordinate. For example: Society news, in the late 19th century, was not sent to the newspapers by reporters via the telegraph, as other news was, because that was considered too expensive for mere society reporting. Society journalists instead sent their reports by ordinary mail. Dix Harwood, author of the 1927 journalism textbook Getting and Writing News, stated that society reporting rarely enjoyed much dignity.
Despite the growth in popularity in the 1880s, many "serious" newspapers were initially cautious about society reporting. For example, the Ottawa Journal didn't permit Florence Randal, its first society reporter, to do anything but recite simple chronicles of the dowagers and debutantes of the city. The staff at the Globe, whose society column began in 1893, considered society news to be "horrid vulgar stuff", according to the Globe's editor Melville Hammond, and its publication was not well received by its subjects: "high Society matrons [who were] unused to the publicizing of private life".
Willoughby Cummings (née Emily Ann McCausland), worked as a press journalist and the first society editor of the Toronto Globe under the pen name of "Sama". Under her stewardship, the Toronto Globe expanded its society coverage from weekly notes to a daily column in three years. In 1900, she became editor of "Woman's Sphere", a department of the Canadian Magazine. She worked on behalf of the poor and afflicted and served as an official of various societies. In 1902, for example, she became the corresponding secretary for the National Council of Women of Canada.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, society reporting was seen as largely the province of female journalists. The "women's pages" were written by women. Indeed, in the 19th century in many newspapers, particularly smaller ones, the only women on the paper's staff at all were those who covered society news. Dix Harwood claimed that the society desk, and the woman who ran it, was nonetheless important:
[T]he society desk is oftentimes one of the most valuable offices on the paper if the occupant be a woman of high intelligence with a nose for news ... and a woman of poise and dignity—a women whom hostesses will be forced to treat as equal.— Dix Harwood, Getting and Writing News, 1927, pp. 148–149
Male reporters were unwilling to cover such things. As Morton Sontheimer stated in 1941, "The women's department jobs almost invariably go to women, not because men can't do them but because they won't." (Newspaperman, pp. 228). One such reporter who refused to do the job even though it had been handed to him was Gordon Sinclair, of the Toronto Star.
Sinclair got the job of woman's page editor after Clifford Wallace, its previous editor, had begged to be relieved of the job. Wallace, the first male woman's page editor of the Star and nicknamed "Nellie" because of that, had been given the job as the result of the proprietor's wife, Mrs Atkinson, regarding the women who had previously run the women's desk as "a menace". In 1922, the managing editor reassigned the position from Wallace to Sinclair. Sinclair treated the position with utter contempt. He later wrote:
From the beginning I never took the job seriously, expecting [that] I would either be fired or soon moved to other work. As a consequence I used to come in at eight in the morning and, except on Saturdays, quit for the day about eleven. I shamelessly clipped most of my material from other newspapers, and stuck to the job for about fourteen months until young Joe Atkinson, who was at that time a proof reader, noticed that all my stuff had previously been published in some other paper.— Gordon Sinclair
- Annegret S. Ogden (1986). The great American housewife: from helpmate to wage earner, 1776–1986. Contributions in Sociology. Vol. 61. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 35. ISBN 978-0-313-24752-1.
- Jane Chapman (2005). Comparative media history: an introduction : 1789 to the present. Polity. pp. 35. ISBN 978-0-7456-3243-8.
- Martin Conboy (2002). The press and popular culture. SAGE. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-7619-6661-6.
- Frederic Hudson; Alfred McClung Lee & Frank Luther Mott (2000). American Journalism, 1690–1940. Vol. 5. Routledge. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-415-22893-0.
- Frederic Hudson; Alfred McClung Lee & Frank Luther Mott (2000). American Journalism 1690–1940. Vol. 4. Routledge. pp. 586–587. ISBN 978-0-415-22888-6.
- Maureen E. Montgomery (1998). "Women in the Public Eye". Displaying women: spectacles of leisure in Edith Wharton's New York. Routledge. pp. 141 et seq. ISBN 978-0-415-90566-4.
- Thomas Ewing Dabney (2007). One Hundred Great Years — The Story of the Times Picayune from Its Founding to 1940. READ BOOKS. pp. 307–308. ISBN 978-1-4067-4200-8.
- Jan Whitt (2008). "Women of Society News and Women's Pages". Women in American journalism: a new history. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-07556-8.
- Steiner, Linda; Chambers, Deborah; Fleming, Carole (2004). "Introduction: women and journalism in the United States and Britain (pp. 7) · Early women journalists: 1850-1946 (pp. 16, 24–25)". In Steiner, Linda; Chambers, Deborah; Fleming, Carole (eds.). Women and journalism. London New York: Routledge. pp. 7, 16, 24–25. ISBN 9780203500668.
- Kimberly Wilmot Voss, and Lance Speere, "Marjorie Paxson: From Women’s Editor to Publisher." Media History Monographs 10#1 (2008) online.
- Beverly E. Schneller (2005). Anna Parnell's political journalism: contexts and texts. Irish Research Series. Vol. 22. Academica Press, LLC. p. 33. ISBN 978-1-930901-29-2.
- Lorraine McMullen (1990). Re(dis)covering our foremothers: nineteenth-century Canadian women writers. Re-appraisals, Canadian writers. Vol. 15. University of Ottawa Press. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-7766-0197-7.
- Morgan, Henry James, ed. (1903). Types of Canadian Women and of Women who are or have been Connected with Canada. Toronto: Williams Briggs. p. 67.
- Kristin L. Hoganson (2007). Consumers' imperium: the global production of American domesticity, 1865-1920. UNC Press Books. p. 311. ISBN 978-0-8078-5793-9.
- Marjory Louise Lang (1999). Women who made the news: female journalists in Canada, 1880–1945. McGill-Queen's Press. pp. 145–146. ISBN 978-0-7735-1838-4.